Fish and Civilization

The Spectator

Fish. Slippery, mysterious creatures. They are mysterious because of where they live, in vast waters, and because they elude the historical record, too: fishing equipment is soft and decays (bamboo, hemp, lines made from kelp, cedar bark, women’s hair).

Brian Fagan is an archaeologist, a profession that we associate with dust and soil and stone, but here he attempts to capture the history of fishing in ancient civilisation. It is not just fish that elude the historian: fisherfolk have always lived on the margins — of land and in recorded history (and still do). ‘To a scholar,’ writes Fagan, ‘the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues.’ So assembling a history of fishing means, well, fishing among archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography and paleoclimatology — ‘to mention only a few’.

Fagan has to fish deeply sometimes and into unexpected places. He investigates the ears of several-thousand-year-old men buried in what is now Israel, which show damage consistent with diving in cold, deep water. He uncovers the giant middens of mollusc shells that appear all over the planet, because though molluscs yield a tiny amount of protein — they are ‘small meat packages sealed in heavy inedible shells’ — they are easy to catch. ‘To knock a limpet from a rock,’ wrote Darwin, ‘does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind.’ Darwin was wrong: the ability to subsist on shellfish allowed humans to live through the lean seasons. It enabled survival.

Fishing, writes Fagan, ‘has created the modern world’. It is a startling claim, particularly given the wont of prehistorians to focus on hunting, gathering and then agriculture. Shellfish collectors, wrote one eminent prehistorian, ‘are normally associated with a low level of culture’. The people of Pinnacle Point on the South African coast who lived 165,000 years ago, collected molluscs to eat. More importantly, they used mollusc shells as adornment. This, says Fagan, ‘is the earliest known sign of the changes that result in today’s cognitive skills’. It is when humans began to be human.

After the Ice Age, people took to boats, so fish spurred mobility and migration. Humans were mobile already, following prey, but it was probably because of fishing that they made the first water voyages, and then they kept going. ‘The search for fish enabled these migrations in two ways: it spurred continual technological refinement of boats and it gave people a reason to undertake long journeys.’

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